We were there at the Green Hell as Timo Bern­hard drove like the devil him­self

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T HAS stood these last 35 years, an emi­nence grise among all those in­ter­ested in how fast a car can lap a cir­cuit. Six min­utes and eleven sec­onds: for three and half decades it has been the mea­sure, an ex­pres­sion not only of the con­cept of speed, but skill, tech­nol­ogy and courage, dis­tilled down into a con­cen­trate and ex­pressed in num­ber form. It is, of course, the lap record set by Ste­fan Bellof in a Porsche 956 at the Nur­bur­gring in the 1983 1000km race, the last time top-level sports car rac­ing com­peted at the world’s most revered and feared track.

Ex­cept it’s not the lap record. And not just be­cause of the ex­tra­or­di­nary go­ings on I was priv­i­leged to wit­ness on June 29th this year, but be­cause it never was. Bellof did lap the track in 6:11.1, but only in qual­i­fy­ing. In the race, with­out qual­i­fy­ing boost and tyres, the best he could man­age was 6:25.9, and as lap records are al­ways taken from the race, that is where the real mark has al­ways lain. And to some there it re­mains to this day: what­ever dou­ble Le Mans and five-time Nur­bur­gring 24hr win­ner Timo Bern­hard and Porsche achieved with their 919 Evo that day in June, it rep­re­sents the fastest ever lap of the Nur­bur­gring’s Nord­schleife 20.8km north­ern loop, not the lap record.

Of course, there have also been the naysay­ers who point out that the 919 Evo may be a rac­ing car, but not one that can race be­cause it has been de­vel­oped from the 919 Le Mans car with no re­gard for any reg­u­la­tions. Its 2.0-litre en­gine has been uncorked via an un­re­stricted fuel flow that al­lows it to pro­duce 535kw. And with an in­crease in the amount of en­ergy the car can re­cover, the elec­tri­cal out­put was raised by 30kw to 330kw. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, how­ever, it can not only run any wing pack Porsche likes, but also in­cor­po­rate full ac­tive aero­dy­nam­ics so straight­line drag can be dec­i­mated too. This is how the Evo gets to de­ploy half as much down­force again as that boasted by the 919 WEC car, yet still goes quicker down the Nur­bur­gring’s main straight than its sis­ter ever went at Le Mans.

Okay, so the car is not el­i­gi­ble to com­pete in any cat­e­gory. But some­one still has to get in and drive it around one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous sport­ing fa­cil­i­ties at an av­er­age speed most peo­ple will not even have driven at, even briefly, just in a straight line.

Yet per­haps most im­pres­sive is the way Porsche chose to go about this chal­lenge. Usu­ally when a car man­u­fac­turer wishes to set a Nur­bur­gring time, it is done in com­plete se­crecy so that if any­thing goes wrong or the car is just not quick enough, no-one need ever know of the fail­ure. But for its at­tempt to break the Nur­bur­gring lap record Porsche has in­vited a hand­ful of jour­nal­ists from around the world to wit­ness the at­tempt first-hand. Win or lose, stand or fall, there will be no hid­ing from it.

The night be­fore we gather and have din­ner with the team. Timo is not only there, he’s happy to chat. I take 15 min­utes of his evening dur­ing which I ask him how big an achieve­ment break­ing the record would be com­pared to win­ning Le Mans. An­noy­ingly he’s so mod­est and clearly in awe of what Bellof did he’s keen only to point out that what he is about to do is far eas­ier than what his late coun­try­man did all those years ago.

So I ask him how hard he is go­ing to push. A few weeks ear­lier team-mate Neel Jani had done a lap of Spa 0.8sec quicker than Lewis Hamil­ton’s pole time from last year’s Bel­gian Grand Prix which was fairly as­ton­ish­ing but … “at Spa we knew what the tar­get was and how hard Neel needed to push to break it. It was ab­so­lutely on the edge ev­ery­where. Here you can­not drive like that: the kerbs are too high and if you make a mis­take, well, in a car as quick as this, you can’t re­ally af­ford to make a mis­take…”

And there is some com­fort in that: every­one knows that with the fire­power at Bern­hard’s dis­posal, break­ing Bellof’s time will be easy. There­after the only ques­tion is by how much. He can take rea­son­able pre­cau­tions and still come away with the job done.

Even so there is still a rather sober­ing mo­ment later in the evening when we are all asked not to broad­cast or pub­lish any in­for­ma­tion in the event of an in­ci­dent un­til

its true ex­tent can be re­li­ably as­cer­tained. And we all know what is be­ing al­luded to here. Even if he doesn’t go at ten tenths, this is a se­ri­ous and se­ri­ously dan­ger­ous un­der­tak­ing and while no-one dis­cusses it, every­one knows it.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we as­sem­ble at the T13 gate, but Bern­hard is nowhere to be seen. I ask team prin­ci­pal An­dreas Seidl where he is. “Prepar­ing him­self,” he replies.

Up close the 919 Evo looks for­mi­da­ble. It’s quite small but the aero­dy­namic mod­i­fi­ca­tions and the dele­tion of its re­dun­dant head­lights make it look like some sight­less crea­ture from a dystopian fu­ture. This is ac­tu­ally the chas­sis that re­tired from the lead at Le Mans last year, with only four hours of the race left to run.

Soon Bern­hard ap­pears from the in­nards of a truck, trim and com­pact in his 919 Evo over­alls, his brow and jaw firmly set. He means busi­ness.

The track opens at 8:00am and there­after ev­ery sec­ond will count. It’s al­ready warm and get­ting warmer, and Porsche’s cal­cu­la­tions sug­gest that by 9:30am the track tem­per­a­ture will shift the Miche­lin qual­i­fy­ing slicks out of their peak op­er­at­ing range. Given that Timo must come in af­ter ev­ery lap, change tyres and fid­dle with the set-up, time is very short.

He goes out and does an ex­ploratory run. I watch from the Pflanz­garten where he passes me at ridicu­lous speeds, but he’s not try­ing at all. The lap is around 6min 40sec, not that much faster than a GT2 RS.

So new slicks go on and he has another go. This time he crosses the line af­ter just 5min 31sec and all our jaws fall to the floor as one. He’s not just beaten the record, he’s smashed it into a bil­lion pieces. I ap­proach Porsche Rac­ing PR chief Hol­ger Eck­hardt to con­grat­u­late him, but he says, “No, no. He’s still warm­ing up.”

The next run is no warm up. Timo is weav­ing fu­ri­ously even in pit lane as he drives the wrong way around the cir­cuit for a kilome­tre, just so he can get a good run up. He flashes past, dis­ap­pears off in the Eifel moun­tains and si­lence de­scends.

Seidl stands ner­vously by the tim­ing screen. This project has been his baby ever since Porsche quit en­durance rac­ing at the end of last year, and what­ever else the 919 Evo does, he knows what we know: this is the big one.

Timo re­turns car­ry­ing barely be­liev­able speed into the last turn and blasts across the line. He’s done a 5min 24sec lap and at last the ten­sion dis­si­pates. It turns out the tar­get was to take a full minute off Bellof’s race record lap. Bern­hard climbs out of the car; the job is done.

Or maybe not. A few min­utes later he re­turns, tyres are out of their blan­kets and he’s be­ing strapped back in. For all his in­ten­tions to not push too hard, the racer’s in­stinct has pre­vailed. He’s go­ing to put it all on the line. Within a minute he’s gone again.

The wait is ag­o­nis­ing, but soon we can hear the ugly blare of the 919’s en­gine as the car hur­tles down the straight. Al­most im­me­di­ately he’s with us, slith­er­ing across the kerbs and over the line to record a lap of 5min 19.546sec. The place erupts. There is laugh­ter and there are tears. More than any­thing there is re­lief, not just at a mis­sion ac­com­plished in which the team did some­thing no-one else had ever come close to achiev­ing be­fore, but more at the knowl­edge that car and driver were still in one piece.

And then the data gets crunched. The car’s av­er­age – av­er­age – speed over that lap was 233.9km/h. It turned into the crest at Sch­we­denkreuz at 322km/h, and blasted down the straight at 369km/h. Per­haps most be­wil­der­ing of all for those who know their way around this place, Bern­hard hit the com­pres­sion at the bot­tom of the Fox­hole at 328km/h and never even thought of lift­ing.

I’d like to say now that it will take a lit­tle time for me to get my head around such num­bers so as bet­ter to ap­pre­ci­ate what Porsche and Bern­hard achieved that day. But the truth is I never will. Fact is, the harder I think about it, the more in­cred­i­ble it be­comes. Had I not been there my­self I might even have strug­gled to be­lieve it. But I was, and the mem­ory will be with me for the rest of my days.

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